Quickest way to empty House of Commons ... a Northern Ireland debate
A key debate to showcase Northern Ireland took place at Westminster last night — but it was shunned by the vast majority of the UK’s MPs.
On the busiest day of the Parliamentary week, the three-hour slot was reserved for the DUP debate, which dedicated the time to “making Northern Ireland the place to visit in 2012”.
But rows of empty green benches greeted the small gathering of MPs as they took turns to make the case.
Aside from small front-bench teams from the Government and Labour, just two English backbench MPs were in the Chamber for most of the debate, which followed a packed Prime Minister’s Questions session and a well-attended address on the Queen’s Jubilee.
Even the number of Northern Ireland MPs was depleted by a clash with a Northern Ireland Select Committee meeting, which took place behind closed doors at the same time.
They missed a litany tributes paid by MPs, ministers and shadow ministers and backing to the NI 2012 tourism campaign.
Secretary of State Owen Paterson praised comic Frank Carson, saying he had “put Northern Ireland on the map, for all the right reasons”.
Highlighting the quality of life and progress since the Troubles, he added: “Northern Ireland is viewed across the world as an example of hope, rather than despair.”
Mr Paterson, who juggled the debate with a meeting of the ministerial committee set up to examine the devolution of corporation tax, said “rebalancing” the economy remained a top priority.
During the discussion, Northern Ireland’s MPs made frequent references to optimism, pointing to last week’s study that said the province was the happiest part of the UK.
South Antrim MP William Mc Crea said: “The years of negativity take their toll, but I genuinely feel that people are starting to feel good about this wee country once again.”
The motion placed before Parliament welcomed the NI 2012 campaign, aimed to encourage more visitors to Northern Ireland, and said it was a “momentous” year for the UK, with reference to the anniversaries of the Titanic and the signing of the Ulster Covenant and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.
Foyle MP Mark Durkan said this year would be a “springboard”, and on question of the jubilee celebrations, he added: “I am not British, a unionist or a monarchist, but I respect any head of state, particularly one who is valued and esteemed by so many people, including my fellow countrymen as well.”
Upper Bann DUP MP David Simpson said he was “unashamedly beating the drum for Northern Ireland.”
He added: “Whether it’s history, culture, performing arts, spectacular scenery, activity holidays, sporting holidays or just lazy day holidays, which would suit me well, we have something for everyone.”
The only note of discord, apart from MPs competing over Northern Ireland’s finest constituency, came from the SDLP’s Margaret Ritchie, who said the motion had not been inclusive because it “underpins a unionist agenda” and made no reference to Irish nationalism.
Vernon Coaker, Labour’s Northern Ireland spokesman, said: “The reality is that Northern Ireland is a great place, a changed place, and a place that wants people to come and visit.”
Wrapping up the debate, Northern Ireland Minister, Hugo Swire, told the House: “If you’re not in Northern Ireland in 2012, you’re nowhere.”
Speaking afterwards, Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s Westminster leader, played down the small attendance.
He added: “It was a good opportunity to promote Northern Ireland to the wider world.”
Message to MPs: You're missing all this
- Land of Giants Festival
- Titanic Festival
- MTV Titanic Sounds
- Belfast Fashion Week
- Downpatrick St Patrick’s Day Festival
- Irish Open golf tournament at Royal Portrush
- 50th Belfast Festival at Queen’s
- Peace One Day concert at Ebrington Barracks, Londonderry
- The Clipper Round The World Yacht Race homecoming leg in Derry
- Olympic Torch relay
Why did so few bother?
Wednesday is the blockbuster day of the Parliamentary week, and MPs are everywhere you turn.
Everywhere, that is, apart from the Chamber of the House of Commons at 3pm. Because after an Address to Her Majesty, where dozens of members took turns to pay tribute to the Queen, they filed out of the chamber before the DUP’s Opposition Day debate got underway.
To be fair, there were plenty of distractions – meetings were taking place, including, in a daft piece of scheduling, the Northern Ireland Select Committee.
Nonetheless, given that the Secretary of State managed to make a speech, dash off to host the working group on corporation tax and make it back in time for the closing passages, some other MPs from England, Scotland and Wales might have made the effort.
MPs support each other’s work all the time, from signing petitions to sitting in late-night debates on their colleagues’ pet projects.
The Northern Ireland lobby are active in Westminster, putting their name to Early Day Motions and not limiting their interventions to local issues.
So it would have been nice if some of their fellow Parliamentarians had ventured out of their offices to support the most high-profile debate on the province for months.
It’s particularly disappointing given the subject matter — boasting about Northern Ireland and encouraging more people to visit. We could have done with even a small fraction of our 650 MPs taking this message back to their constituencies.